Monday, May 25, 2009

A weekend at the beach

Salty sea air. Fresh fish for dinner. Smutty reading on the train... It was a great weekend in Biarritz.

This adorable town is not even 15 miles from the border of Spain, in Basque territory. If I had had more time, I would have ventured over, but with only two days, I wanted to absorb what was there—that is, great beaches, shopping, vistas and, bien sur, food.

The coastline is very ragged with gorgeously sculpted bluffs. The main beach, La Grande Plage could be likened to the Jersey Shore: tons of families and teens, the sand covered in sunbathers and excitable swimmers… but I guess you don’t see topless 70-year-old women or moms changing in front of you in Jersey.

Further south, the Plage du Port is a little protected cove, over which I looked during lunch on the terrace of Le Caritz.

And further south still is la Plage de la Cote des Basques. This was the coolest beach as this is where all the surfers were and, in fact, is where they shot the film “The Sun Also Rises.” On Saturday morning, I stopped at the town’s incredible marché—another French orgy of bread, cheese, pastries, fruit, vegetables, wine, meats, you name it—to bring a beautiful hunk of pain aux cereals (fresh, dense multigrain bread), brebis (the region’s specialty, sheep’s milk cheese) and strawberries (so sweet) with me to the beach where I watched—tres jalouse—the surfers.

There’s a footpath connecting all of these beaches, which, as you would expect of a seaside town, has incredible views of the ocean. There are also many staircases and side streets that are great for exploring. I made good use of them, revisiting the twists, turns, ups and downs again and again. It’s a hilly town, and the architecture (grand stone villas with terra cotta tile roofs) and foliage (tamarisk trees and hydrangea bushes) were my favorite parts.

And, unbeknownst to me (I swear!), the Basque region played a significant part in the history of chocolate, so they have a chocolate museum. Of course I went. It was sort of like being an elementary student getting schooled in chocolate production, but it was fun to see the vintage machines, tools, advertising and packaging for my favorite thing in the world (besides Milo, of course). It set me up to visit the town’s five chocolatiers—but I only bought bonbons from one of them.

I did, however, sample a couple of the other regional sweets: the gateau Basque and pate d’amandes. The gateau Basque actually comes in two varieties: one, a drier circular shortbread cake filled with cherry preserves. The other is a square slice of shortbread pastry that sandwiches a lemony custard filling. Both were good; neither was earth moving.

And the pate d’amandes came in an infinite number of flavors: raspberry, pistachio, lemon, pine nut, chocolate… sometimes it was sliced and packaged like a chocolate bar, sometimes smaller bite-sized pieces were rolled in sugar and sold like a bag of suckers. It was delicious both ways.

Let’s see… what else… beautiful weather, friendly people, a cute hotel, fresh food, crooked streets and breathtaking hillsides for exploring. It was pretty perfect.

Next time, though, I want to catch a game of pelote, indulge in a thalassotherapy spa session, dine at the Grand Palais, and maybe meet one of those surfer boys.

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